Singer Connie Dover has spread Celtic song traditions throughout North America and offers us a unique perspective on the creative process from fringe of the Kansas prairie, urging Americans to lay claim to their Celtic musical heritage.
I live in rural northwest Missouri, on the eastern edge of the Kansas prairie. When I look out of my window, I don't see the lochs, glens or castle walls which are the scenes of many of the songs I sing. Instead, my view is of rolling farmlands planted with endless rows of corn and soybeans.
I have a dog and five horses, drive a pick-up truck, and have worked off and on for the past six years on a Wyoming cattle ranch. Arkansas-born and Missouri-raised, I am, on my mother's side, Mexican and Scots/Irish, on my father's side, Cherokee and English.
Let me be the first to say that I live outside of the cultural stereotype that many people associate with Celtic music (which can be unsettling for listeners who might imagine that I live in a vine-covered cottage, wear lacy dresses and sip tea!). However, while some may view this "American-ness" as a liability to my profession, I find that it opens new worlds of musical possibility and provides an opportunity for diversity that stretches beyond established notions of what defines traditional music.
I find myself engaged in a two-part process: singing the old music that has been handed down, while also continuing the American folk tradition of adapting elements of that music to reflect my own experience.
The beauty of being a singer of Celtic music in the United States is that we have a richly varied culture from which we can draw our own interpretations of the music. Since so much American folk music has its roots in Great Britain and Ireland, we have the luxury of watching it flourish and grow into unique and fascinating hybrids, some of which seem far removed from their Celtic ancestors. The songs I learn, research and ultimately record all reflect this diversity.
The songs on my CDs are an unabashed mix, most of which fall loosely into the "Celtic" category. Irish Gaelic love songs are paired with cowboy laments, Scots murder ballads follow Latin songs from the ancient Roman Catholic liturgy.
Why the mixture of seemingly radically different material? I select first of all what I feel is beautiful, unique and worthy of attention -- whatever might be compelling enough to draw in the 20th Century listener. The resulting variety is a mirror of my personal taste, inclination and interests, which is the only "method" I have for choosing songs.
Much of my musical repertoire has been determined by simple geography. I wasn't raised in an Irish or Scots community, and didn't discover this music until I was well into my teens. Not having access to any singers from whom I could learn these songs compelled me to get creative with my sources, which are varied, to say the least.
Sifting through song collections and books of poetry has introduced me to a wealth of musical inspiration. I found the lyrics to "Somebody" while doing undergraduate work at Oxford University. When I should have been researching an essay on 17th Century political reform movements in England, I found myself drawn toward a dusty old collection of Scottish songs entitled Jacobite Relics. I copied out the words and set them to a new melody -- just for fun.
Although I never imagined it at the time, this brief digression from my studies would become the title song of my first album, which I recorded in Scotland several years later. Since then, my desire to learn more about British ballads has taken me to Scotland and Ireland, and has also led me to seek out the songs' American counterparts in Wyoming and Montana, down the Santa Fe Trail and on wild goose chases too numerous to mention.
Although recording technology has made the world a smaller place, I have also relied on the time-honored method of oral tradition. Being raised outside of the Celtic music "loop" forced me to look outside of my immediate community and introduced me to music lovers from all walks of life. First and foremost among these is Scottish musician, Phil Cunningham, who has produced all of my recordings, and whose extraordinary tallent and imagination have helped shape the sound of contemporary Celtic music.
I've learned songs from the wonderful Irish singer Cathal McConnell, of Boys of the Lough fame, who is eternally generous with his repertoire, from old-time Wyoming cowboys, from friends and family who recall bits and pieces of the "old songs," from a Benedictine monk, even from my veterinarian. One thing I have learned -- if you really look, sources are literally everywhere, and the search is an adventure in itself.
It can be a challenge to find tunes to Gaelic songs while living on the edge of the Kansas prairie, so I often write new music in a traditional style. If I find a set of lyrics that I particularly like, I'll set them to a melody of my own making. If I find only a verse or two of a really great folk song, I'll fill in with my own lyrics, always hoping that I am remaining true to the spirit of the original song. When words fail me, I write instrumental pieces. I suspect that necessity being the mother of invention is the reason for the birth of many folk songs.
I also look to my own environment as a source of inspiration. This inspiration can be anything: people, places, daily life and current events -- the same topics that have always moved us to express ourselves in song. New ballads in the old style, modern music that honors the beauty of the traditional melodies -- to my mind, these are the keys to the on-going vitality of this music.
Why do I devote so much time to researching the songs I record? I believe that placing a song in its larger context gives it greater meaning and impact. I make it my mission to unearth a song's source, to follow its development, to trace the map across which it has traveled. This is a kind of sleuth work.
"Ned of the Hill" stands on its own as one of the most beguiling love songs in Irish music, but when we learn that the song's hero was a real-life Irish patriot who was murdered by a traitor among his own people, hearing the song becomes a powerful emotional experience. What I have discovered is that the origins of these songs are as diverse and endlessly interesting as the songs themselves.
The search for new songs is not only an outward journey, but an inward one, as well. What all of the songs I've recorded share in common is that they are a reflection of my personal taste, of what moves me. What attracts me to them is that each song, in its own way, speaks to the human heart, which knows no culture, no century, no national boundaries.
Our musical resources are vast, and they're all around us. American life and culture can be as inspirational to us as Ireland and Scotland were to our forbears. To continue this tradition is to forge another link in a chain of gritty and tenacious music that has survived generations of battering and an on-going Trans-Atlantic migration, and has (finally) managed to capture the imagination of the 20th Century listener.
As Americans who are cultivating our appreciation of this incredible gift, we need to remember that we are not just on the outside looking in -- this is our music, too.